How to Observe and Document Evidence of Climate Change

Back in 2001 I studied Environment, Economics and Ecology at York University. At the time the environment was a hot topic and it seemed like there would be a great push seen in the world to help to protect it for generations to come. The course was varied in content ranging from mathematical and chemistry methods to geography and management. There was a lot of data supporting observations of damaged aspects of the environment such as the atmosphere, habitat or wildlife populations. There was a clear argument for human-augmented change of the climate. I learnt about many individuals and organisations that were working to try to mitigate impacts in various ways. Organisations such as WWF, Greenpeace and many others.

Upon deciding to cycle round the world I decided that I should try to tie in my studies. By chance my expedition partner, Tom had met a person who was quite influential in the WWF, and we were able to get some support to document our observations about climate change en route.

This was also attractive because we had a:

  • Vested interest in human survival.
  • An interest in human to human level of finding out about the experiences of other human beings compared to one's own life experience (e.g. emotion based stories and narratives).

This manifested itself as interviewing any willing people we met, in the first year of traveling who were willing to give their anecdotal experiences. This ranged from people who worked in environmental organisations to a man who told us about golf ball sized hail storms. It was important part of the trip which lead to some thoroughly rewarding and interesting encounters and places. Unfortunately during this cutting-our-teeth filming period, we were crap at filming and the production company naively spent all our sponsorship budget too quickly and therefore decided they were going to collect all the footage at the end and make a film instead of a podcast. Therefore this footage is still as far as I'm aware, sitting in a shoebox somewhere and we all moved on.

However, over time the idea of collecting anecdotal stories about climate change turns out to be rather an accurate way of studying climate change, because climate change itself can't be measured.

I originally wrote a post about this in approximately 2009. My belief then reflected conventional understanding of how to tackle climate change including:

  • Reducing individual impact (everyone does their bit).
  • Taxation on main perpetrators.

However, since then we have all realised that you can try to solve the problem inside the existing system or with a new system. Which turns out to be the general dilemma in the world anyway. People who have built up their wealth over many years want to protect it and their lifestyle - they don't want a lot of change. Fast change tends to become chaotic. People adapt but not everyone can. The liberal left has trumpeted values of equality and tolerance on the one hand but the market also enjoyed years of deregulation because the idea was that it would sort everything out left to its own devices. That didn't work out hence financial crashes and now we are living in some kind of new situation. More frequent mini crashes, Brexit, Trump etc. Climate change has dropped right down the agenda. Is this a form of wilful avoidance? Or is it as the famous Slovenian Philosopher Slavoj Zizek says that the ecological crisis narrative has turned into a kind of new religious judgement day story? People won't have things forced upon them and tend to avoid negative news. People in the Western developed countries are used to being consumers and it is a language they understand. Marketing and advertised is fully integrated through many channels of communication. People want to buy things to improve their life but what is the product and can a product 'designed' be a solution to this problem that is partly a consequence of designed 'things' in the world.

I interviewed one of my former lecturers and she recommended the following when collecting anecdotal stories about climate change:

What should I be looking for - e.g. tell-tail signs of climate change?

[Nicola Carslaw]

Tricky one and depends what you're looking for really. It's particularly hard when you are only going somewhere once. I could imagine being able to gather interesting information like this if you went back year after year to observe change, but one-off visits would be less useful.

Try to get a cross section how things are changing. For example, the effect on landscapes in different geographical locations, how climate change affects areas differently - e.g. Some getting warmer and some cooler. At least then we can compare with other studies.

On a trip like this it's impossible to go back to the same place to collect the data over and over and that isn't the nature of the trip. It is more of an observational analysis and anthropological study of the effects on people and landscapes.

What is the effect on people NOW at a critical time in the history of the planet and the human race. Is there any evidence?

Less concentration on what's happening to 'show' progress. Visiting big projects like renewable energy sites or WWF projects is part of it. But I think it's important to try and have in mind a kind of 'conversational interest' when staying with people and to document and keep a record for that through film, writing, taking photos, audio or whatever.

It's more important to get people's thoughts and attitudes, and historical observations.

Try persuading elderly members of the communities you visit to talk about what things were like when they were little and how climate has changed and any consequent impacts.

Elderly members of the communtiy:

  • Strike up a conversation about the weather.
  • If they grow their own food, talk about how successful their garden has been

What would be the most useful/ interesting things to ask people en route?

[Nicola Carslaw]

I would ask them how things have changed. Wildlife, landscapes, way of life in general.

If they are a farmer, great, they will know loads about weather patterns etc

Farmers

  • Ask them how their crops have been in the last years.
  • Ask them what they grow and if they changed their crop – if so, why?
  • What has the weather been like? - if it's raining a lot enquire whether it's alway like that. Try and expand the timescale and see how far back they can remember.
  • Cars, vehicles, mechanisation, change in production techniques
  • Cost -Change
  • Pollution
  • Livelihood
  • Questions like I'ts cold, has it alway been thing cold, or put it in context of the geographical location. - for example – snow cover on the mountains- bitterness of winters, heat in peak of summer, rainy season, growing season for crops.
  • Effect of the weather on patterns of production – what are the main crops, and products- have they stayed the same or changed – for what reason?
  • Film people interacting with the environment and landscapes – farming, walking, working, gardening, collecting food, pumping out emissions, consuming vast amounts of resources or not. Evidence of sustainable practices. Does it seem things changing for better or worse?

I've read some really interesting books recently on historical pollution (I know I should get out more), which all used anecdotal tales of people who lived through certain events (killer smog of 1952; dust bowl years in the 1930s in America and the appalling stink in London at the end of the 19th century caused by sewage discharge into the Thames). You could imagine having a really interesting report based on such observations, particularly in key locations where climate change is happening rapidly.

With the above in mind, try and find out any such occurences . What is the most difficult thing they had to live through in regards to this? For example if it was a nasty political system or dictatorship then how did that change attitudes to the planet. For example communism – mass extraction with huge machines.

Anybody who interacts with the landscape is very interesting for finding out about changes. People who work outside.

Ask people about availability of resources. Is there a scarcity of food or water? What are their thoughts on this. Where do they think the resouces are actually going e.g. Cities or vice versa. How are the perceptions of people in the city different from those in the country? What hopes have people got for the future- in general – livelihood, economic situation, their environment, their children?

What are people's perceptions on climate change. Gentley breach the subject and see if they have even heard of it. Do they have an opinion? Who is to blame? Is it a problem? Try not to influence people's answer's unless? Often in Western Europe, where awareness was high it turned into a debate on the issue. However, the situation has been totally different in Turkey and the Caucasus where it seems this a very low general awareness of the issues.

Livelihoods and the impact on the individual may the most powerful affects of climate change.

Documenting

  • In terms of taking photos - Difficult when just a snap shot in time - ideally you could have a store of historical images with you from along your route and you can repeat the photograph. We have some experience of this - it can be very powerful tool. If we photograph what we see then at least it can be compared to photographs others have taken and maybe we could start a trend of cyclists or travellers photographing a particular spot and then posting in on a website.

  • Visit Universities? They should have local knowledge regarding local phenomenon that are occurring.

Is there a way I can log information in more structured scientific way?

[Nicola Carslaw]

You could ask everybody the same questions, so device some sort of questionnaire. There are books on how to write questionnaires and how to analyse the data.

What are the most important issues relating to climate change?

[Nicola Carslaw]

I guess that will depend on your point of view and where you live. It's going to range from survival in some of the low lying Pacific island states (where migration has already started to NZ) to milder climates for others. The impacts on world water supply (increased droughts) and knock on effects on food supply could be tricky to deal with.

Affects on wildlife:

  • habitat displacement – habitats change so fast species can't adapt
  • Shifting Life Cycles and Global Warming - animals change their migration and hibernation patterns to sync up with change in climate. Different species change at different speeds, disrupting their connections in the ecosystem. e.g. State and federal leaders in Australia have agreed to create a 1,740-mile wildlife corridor spanning the east coast of the continent -- in part to allow plants and animals to flee the effects of global warming
  • Big falls in Antarctic penguin populations, fewer fish in African lakes, shifts in American river flows and earlier flowering and bird migrations in Europe are all likely to be driven by global warming, the study found. [3] A World Wildlife Fund study found that a northern exodus from the United States to Canada by some types of warblers led to a spread of mountain pine beetles that destroy economically productive balsam fir trees [1]

Weather extremes directly affecting wildlife

  • Sea level rise affecting habitat area and encroaching on farmland and human inhabited areas
  • New species arriving
  • changes in water availability. snow and ice melts earlier in the year, driving up spring water levels in rivers and lakes, with droughts following in the summer

Effects on Humans

  • Indigenous peopels - a representative from Puerto Rico to the Forum, told the UN Chronicle that indigenous peoples all over the world, from South America to Asia, are all affected in many ways by climate change. We see climate change linked to issues of our lands and territories [5]

Due to global warming, the indigenous way of life has suffered because of flooding and avalanches", said panellist Lakan Bibi, representing the Indigenous Peoples Survival Foundation and the indigenous peoples in the Hindu Kush mountain range.

Human health

  • Direct effect on people of extreme heat and cold

References

[1] About.com Global Warming Affect on Wildlife http://environment.about.com/od/globalwarming/a/global_warm_wil.htm visited July 2008

[2] BBC Weather Centre - http://www.bbc.co.uk/climate/impact/wildlife.shtml visited july 2008

[3] Guardian – World's Wildlife and environment hit by climate change - http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/may/15/climatechange.scienceofclimatechange – visited July 2008

[4] Grist - http://www.grist.org/news/daily/2007/07/09/1/index.html – visited july 2008

[5] Dr. Rob Marchant Environment Department University of York

[6] UN Chronicle http://www.un.org/Pubs/chronicle/2007/webArticles/060507_globalwarming_indigenouspeoples.htm - Global Warming Threatens Traditions of Indigenous Peoples – visited july 2008

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